Books play a major part in much of what we do at the Modern War Institute. We review new books, we host events with authors, and we publish our War Books series. Within the extended MWI team, we also regularly discuss great books that we have read on modern war. So as we mark the end of 2018, we asked MWI staff, fellows, and scholars to share with readers the best book (or books) they have read in the past year. We’ll keep adding to this list, so be sure to check back. We also want to hear from readers, so if there’s a great book you’ve read this year, tell us in the comments section.
Liam Collins, MWI Director
How Everything Became War and War Became Everything, by Rosa Brooks
Earlier this year we hosted our Class of 2006 War Studies Conference, and the theme was “Blurred Lines: Civil-Military Relations and Modern War.” I read a number of books in advance of the conference, and Brooks’s book stands out. A great storyteller, she weaves her personal experiences as a civilian adviser in the Pentagon to help explain the expanding role of the military and the issues that come with it.
David Johnson, MWI Adjunct Scholar
Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific, 1944-1945, by Waldo Heinrichs and Marc Gallicchio
This book is an important contribution to understanding the political, military (strategic, operational, tactical) components of this difficult theater. The real contribution of the authors is the discussion of the Army-Navy command tensions in theater and in Washington, and the disagreements within the government of how best to transition between a full mobilization for the war and the re-conversion to peace. They leave us with an interesting question: Given the challenges of redeployment, partial demobilization, divisions replenished by green troops, and an enemy prepared to fight to the end, could the invasion of Japan have gone off as planned? They close with the answer: “Under these circumstances it is not surprising that Truman and Marshall understood that the atomic bomb had been indispensable and that it alone had brought the kind of victory they sought.” Well worth the read!
Rick Montcalm, MWI Deputy Director
Fixing Failed States, by Clare Lockhart and Ashraf Ghani
Building Militaries in Fragile States, by Mara Karlin
I read these two books together on my way to Afghanistan this summer. The first, Fixing Failed States, was co-authored by the now president of Afghanistan. While the book is a bit dated, and the prescribed Ten Commandments for good governance are more aspirational than practical, I found it useful to revisit the book on my way to Kabul. This is a quick read for anyone working in or interested in the ongoing challenges with building a stable government in a country that has arguably been at war for four decades.
The second, Dr. Mara Karlin’s Building Militaries in Fragile States, challenges decades of conventional wisdom surrounding how the United States conducts security assistance and security sector reform. Given the Resolute Support mission’s emphasis on training and developing Afghan institutions as the key to ending the seventeen-year conflict, Dr. Karlin presents a number of conclusions and recommendations that all policy makers, strategists, and advisers should consider.
Andrea Goldstein, MWI Non-Resident Fellow
The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker
I read a number of fantastic books this year, but as I’ve been trying to read more fiction, I’d like to highlight a fantastic work that I read over this holiday break that came out this year. Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls explores the last days of the Trojan War from the perspective of Briseis and other women enslaved as war “prizes.” The book in particular explores gendered silences and how the perspectives and agencies of those who have less power are often erased or subsumed by others, particularly in conflict. The novel also explores the choices that those who are effectively enslaved must make in order to survive. I highly recommend it!
David Danford, MWI Resident Military Fellow
Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government, by Larry P. Arnn
There is no greater Churchill scholar than Larry Arnn, and he provides an excellent view into the mind of a great statesman grappling with messy questions in foreign policy. Arnn is an exceptionally clear writer and he makes the complex problems of Churchill’s day accessible to everyone.
Ali Wyne, MWI Non-Resident Fellow
The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947, Daniel Kurtz-Phelan
In this rich, absorbing account, the executive editor of Foreign Affairs surfaces a little-known episode of history and illuminates its impact on perhaps one of the best-known: The China Mission documents how George Marshall’s failure to prevent the collapse of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government influenced his thinking as he crafted the framework for Western Europe’s economic resuscitation that would come to bear his imprimatur. The vaunted statesman’s disappointment in the Pacific made him appreciate anew that even the world’s lone superpower confronts acute limits when attempting to shape a chaotic world. With the $13.3 billion in aid that it ultimately provisioned under the terms of the Marshall Plan, the United States aimed not to revive a war-torn region through a unilateral dictate, but to give the member countries a foundation upon which to serve as the instruments of their own recovery.
Steve Leonard, MWI Non-Resident Fellow
On Grand Strategy, by John Lewis Gaddis
I tend to define a “good read” by how much a book causes me to take pause and think. Gaddis’s On Grand Strategy proved to be that kind of book, as he explored strategy through the lens of history, using Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor of “The Hedgehog and the Fox” to deconstruct the thinking of some our greatest strategists. The result is a book that is entertaining to read as it is informative.
Noel Sioson, Department of Military Instruction Strategic Planner
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini
In a world that gets smaller and smaller, I continue to re-read this book to better understand and appropriately interact with other people. I highly recommend this book for those in the business of engaging stakeholders with multiple equities.
Rosa Brooks, MWI Adjunct Scholar
Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry
This novel is a strange, terrible, wonderful book about war, cruelty, pain, mercy, and love. A young Irish emigrant ends up in the US Army, fighting in the Indian Wars and then the Civil War. It’s a reminder of the terrible brutality of America’s wars of westward expansion, but also of the sheer redemptive strangeness of this vast and always-changing nation.
Matthew Cancian, MWI Non-Resident Fellow
Adventures in My Youth, by Armin Scheiderbauer
Just like the more popular The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer, Adventures in My Youth is an autobiography of a German soldier on the Eastern Front during World War II. It is not as combat-oriented as Sajer’s work, which makes Scheiderbauer’s work more humanizing but perhaps less interesting to a reader purely interested in military affairs. Being an officer, however, Scheiderbauer still offers a complementary perspective to Sajer’s on military matters. Readers can attach Scheiderbauer’s personal anecdotes to abstract military discussions: the fog of war in his confused flight during the destruction of Army Group Center, the moral effect of technological overmatch during his first encounter with a T-34, and the attritional realities of conventional war as a twenty-one-year-old lieutenant winds up commanding a “battalion” of less than fifty men in eastern Germany. Available on Audible, it is a good book for a commute.
(Honorable mention: The Strategy of Conflict, by Thomas Schelling. While I had already read Schelling’s Arms and Influence several times, I got more out of The Strategy of Conflict. Two main points: there is an element of bargaining in all real conflicts, and their resolutions often hinge on intuitive compromise points that are not susceptible to formal, mathematical analysis.)
John Spencer, MWI Chair of Urban Warfare Studies
Strategy: A History, Lawrence Freedman
This book is a must-read for students of strategy. Better than any other book on the subject, it truly forces us to understand the theories of strategy and military force. It also makes clear how important it is to remember the specific contexts in which strategy is made. The books is a beast, but don’t let that deter you—it’s available as an audiobook.
Joe Byerly, MWI Non-Resident Fellow
Mastery, by Robert Greene
This book is a great mix of psychology, sociology, and history. Greene examines the science behind mastery and the lives of “masters” such as Einstein, Da Vinci, and Darwin to show how anyone can move from novice to expert. I appreciated it because he makes a strong case for showing how passion + time (practice) equals mastery at any endeavor.
Ryan Leach, MWI Resident Military Fellow
The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War, by Brian Linn
One of the military’s most difficult tasks is to predict and prepare for future war. Unfortunately for the military professional, it’s nearly an impossible task. Brian Linn’s insightful, funny, and sometimes rage-inducing Echo of Battle explores many of the US Army’s (often failed) attempts to innovate and adapt. Linn argues that the US Army often prepares for wars that are vastly different than those that it fights—sometimes with disastrous consequences. As the Army’s next operating concept comes to fruition, it is important to remember that war will not be fought as we we think it ought to be, but often in a time, place, and manner not of our choosing. Echo of Battle is a somewhat of a rarity in modern military history—thoroughly enjoyable, meticulously well-researched, and impeccably timely.
Max Brooks, MWI Non-Resident Fellow
The Science Of Evil, by Simon Baron-Cohen
I think this books is an important work for two reasons. First, when confronting an enemy on an intimate level, COIN or otherwise, its critical to separate the hardwired fanatics from the folks just trying to get by. And second, in the vein of Gen. Bob Scales’s quest to make our “intimate killers” more elite, it’s imperative to arm recruiters with the tools for flagging latent psychopaths.
John Amble, MWI Editorial Director
Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War, by Paul Scharre
I almost didn’t choose this book because so many people will already be aware of it. But it is the best book I’ve read in 2018, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. Conversations about things like autonomy and artificial intelligence risk descending quickly into platitudes devoid of any real meaning. Scharre manages to do the opposite, breaking down complex ideas about technology and the future of war in engaging and accessible ways. It’s one of the few things I’ve read on the topic that truly equip a non-specialist reader (like me) with a better understanding of AI and its role on the future battlefield.
(Honorable mention: The Moon is Down, by John Steinbeck. Cadets in the the Insurgency & Counterinsurgency course within the Defense and Strategic Studies program at USMA are assigned to read this short novel, written in 1942, and then write a paper about it. I taught the course this year, and the book does an incredible job of making clear the timeless dynamics of civil resistance to foreign occupation. What I find more interesting, though, is that the book also represents a fascinating case study of propaganda at war—the book was secretly distributed in several European countries, aimed at reinforcing the will of populations under Nazi occupation. It didn’t hurt that I managed to find a first edition at a used bookstore in the UK, which I picked up for £6.50.)
Mark Hertling, MWI Adjunct Scholar
I was enthralled by several books this year, representing various genres. Here are some of my best reads of 2018:
Grant, by Ron Chernow
Chernow is known for detailed histories, and he has several Pulitzer-prize winning histories to his credit. I believe this is his best work, as the author masterfully traces Grant’s evolving operational and strategic genius, his participation in various political intrigues in the post-Civil War era, and how he handled—and mishandled—presidential challenges.
Leadership in Turbulent Times, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Professor Kearns Goodwin takes the presidents she knows so well—Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and LBJ—and shows how they grew as strategic leaders, persistently overcoming their character faults and shortcomings during times of fracture and fear.
From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia, by Michael McFaul
A lifelong student and professor of Russian government and history, McFaul was tapped to be ambassador to Russia in 2008. In this work he provides insider detail as to how Russia under Putin works and why he believes we are entering into an era of new confrontation with this nation.
Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones
Quinones provides a fascinating take on the intersection of healthcare, addiction, traffickers, government, families, and communities that occurs as a result of today’s drug and healthcare crisis.
The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in the Age of Lies, by Michael Hayden
A former director of the CIA and NSA, and retired Air Force general officer, Mike Hayden describes the reality of various national security challenges and how now, more than ever, facts must overcome narrative.
An Unsung Soldier: The Life of General Andrew Goodpaster, by Robert Jordan
While I knew Gen. Goodpaster as the superintendent at West Point, and I was aware he had been pulled out of retirement and reverted to the rank of lieutenant general so he could hold that position in the time of an honor crisis at the academy, I didn’t know the details of the rest of his glorious career in World War II and as NATO commander. A fascinating life story.
Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women, by Brad Johnson and David Smith
Smith and Johnson—two male Naval Academy professors—provide fascinating research for those in the military and in corporate America as to why and how men should mentor and develop women. Not of bit of “man-splaining” in the text, but it’s a must-read for any commander or corporate leader who has women in his ranks.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari
Destroying any conception that tomorrow will look much like today, Harari asks the question of what will replace famine, plague, and war, what destiny future leaders will set for their followers, and how we protect a fragile world from destructive impulses.
Pour Your Heart into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, by Howard Schultz, and Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, by Phil Knight
Two giants of the private sector provide their strategic visions and tactical approaches in building iconic organizations.
Image credit: David Stewart (adapted by MWI)